Bruce Reilly, 46, cast his first Louisiana ballot on Saturday, thanks to legislation that he helped to craft, which was passed by the Legislature last year and signed into law as Act 636.
Because Reilly is on probation, he was barred from voting until the law took effect on March 1.
Unlike some other states, Louisiana does not disenfranchise all convicted felons. But until March, state law did not allow them to vote if they were “on paper” — serving either probation or parole.
Act 636 changed that. Now the population of eligible voters includes all felons who are on probation and anyone released on parole who has been out of prison for at least five years.
Reilly is under correctional supervision as part of a second-degree murder sentence rendered in 1996 in Rhode Island, where he served nearly 12 years in prison and was released with a 20-year probationary sentence. His probation was transferred to Louisiana in 2011, when he moved to New Orleans to attend Tulane University Law School.
The massive number “2” tattooed on his left arm honors Reilly’s efforts in Rhode Island, where he successfully fought for the right to vote. He was able to vote for several years there, after 2006, when Rhode Island voters passed Amendment 2, modifying the state constitution to allow people with felony convictions to vote even if they were still on probation or parole.
But when Reilly moved to Louisiana, he lost the right to vote. “How can this be constitutional?” he said he asked himself. “I felt like a guest, not a citizen,” he said.
Reilly dove into the issue, researching tirelessly, and along the way met Norris Henderson, founder of VOTE — short for Voice Of The Experienced — an ex-offenders’ advocacy group. Henderson had long been devoted to expanding voting rights for people with felony records, who often assumed that they were precluded from voting because of a past conviction.
Last year, Henderson worked together with Reilly, who became VOTE’s deputy director, to push for the passage of Act 636. “Every citizen who has completed their sentence has a right to vote,” Henderson said. “The right to vote is a fundamental right in Louisiana.”
For those affected, Act 636 represents a chance to assert their political voice. But it’s unlikely to tip the balance in many elections, because only a small fraction of the estimated 36,000 Louisianans covered by the law have returned to the state’s voter rolls.
Available data from the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office suggest the number of newly registered felon voters is fewer than 4,000 statewide, though no agency has tracked the number of newly eligible voters.
In February, the month before the new law went into effect, 82 people with past felony convictions had their voting rights reinstated, statewide. The monthly pace has roughly doubled since Act 636 took effect. Since March, a total of 1,393 people who’d had their voting rights suspended because of a felony conviction were reinstated onto voter rolls statewide, the data show.
In New Orleans, about 10 people from VOTE arrived in a group at the registrar’s office on March 1 to reinstate their voting rights, but registrations have been sporadic since then. About 49 people eligible under the law change registered to vote in July and August.
In East Baton Rouge Parish, where the registrar’s office kept an informal count, 111 people with convictions returned to the voter rolls. However, most other registrars contacted for this story didn’t track the number of people with past convictions who’d had their voting rights restored.
The numbers may appear “a drop in the bucket in a state of a few million,” Reilly said. But in coming years, tens of thousands of people will eventually be able to cast ballots because of the law, he said.
Over the past six months, VOTE has placed signs on neutral grounds and distributed voter education information online, in an attempt to reach Louisianans on probation or parole who may now be eligible to vote.
Still, Reilly has been frustrated that there’s been little explanation from official channels, most notably from the office of Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, a Republican who opposed the law change but has promised to effectively implement it. The instructions posted on the secretary of state’s website are filled with legal terms and are difficult for a layman to understand, Reilly said.
But Ardoin’s spokeman, Tyler Brey, defended the office’s work. “The law does not change the process for reinstatement or registration, simply who is newly eligible, which our website reflects,” Brey said.
Despite the passage of Act 636, there is no state database shared by correctional and voting officials to clearly show who is and is not eligible to vote. So when Troy Rhodes, 51, registered to vote in September, he brought an eligibility letter from the state Probation and Parole Office.
This spring, VOTE and other advocacy groups backed an unsuccessful bill authored by Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, to streamline the process. Among other things, Smith’s bill would have allowed the Department of Corrections to send letters certifying a felon’s eligibility directly to their local registrar of voters, to automatically return them to the active voting rolls.
Unless the law changes or a policy change is enacted, any voters flagged as suspended by a felony conviction must pick up a letter from their parole or probation officer before heading to a parish registrar’s office.
By the end of last month, 12,914 people — about a third of those presumed eligible for reinstatement — had requested and received such letters, according to Department of Corrections spokesman Ken Pastorick.
In Rhodes’ case, the letter outlined his circumstances: His conviction was overturned in federal court after he’d served 16 years of a 149-year sentence at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, for the armed robbery and attempted murder of a delivery driver.
Yet, as it turned out, Rhodes’ registration raised no red flags at the Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters Office, because he had never been on the registrar’s rolls before he went to prison.
Rhodes had never bothered to vote or even to register before he was shipped off to Angola at age 34. “I didn’t believe that votes mattered,” he said.
While incarcerated, however, he became interested in the political system, as he realized the influence that each new gubernatorial administration had on prisoners’ rights and on justice-reform efforts. He learned the power of the ballot, he said.
So Rhodes researched the candidates, then headed to the early-voting site in eastern New Orleans with his wife Christine, a longtime dedicated voter.
Rhodes cast his votes and left feeling “satisfied” and part of something larger: the body electorate, he said.
“I felt like a part of the process. I felt like I was a citizen, exercising my rights in a democracy,” he said.